The Panthers' 15-1 record in 2015 stunned many, but their 6-10 finish last season was a more brutal Super Bowl hangover than the components warranted. Cam Newton's progress through shoulder rehab will be key in determining whether an improved and refocused roster returns to prominence.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
CAN NEWTON BOUNCE BACK?
Compared to his unstoppable 2015 campaign, Cam Newton finished with 16 fewer passing touchdowns, five fewer rushing scores and about 600 fewer total yards last season. With four more interceptions, one missed game due to a concussion, and career lows in completion percentage (52.9), yards per pass attempt (6.88) and yards per rush (4.0) to boot, he endured his most disappointing year as a pro. Although a partial tear in his right rotator cuff plagued him after Week 14, Newton was initially expected to avoid an offseason operation on the ailment. As a result, it was rather surprising when he underwent arthroscopic surgery in late March. The procedure's four-month timetable prevented Newton from familiarizing much with new targets Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel, Russell Shepard and Charles Johnson before training camp. However, with Greg Olsen, Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess still around, Newton will have the best supporting cast of his career once he's healthy. That, along with growing durability concerns, will certainly result in fewer rushing attempts this season, restricting Newton's once-preeminent dual-threat stock. In contrast to last year, though, there otherwise seem to be more questions than answers regarding his 2017 outlook, which hinges on his rehab and a return to form.
INFLUX OF EXCITING OPTIONS ELECTRIFIES OFFENSE
In six seasons since joining the Panthers, Cam Newton's dynamic playmaking ability has helped mask the team's lack of top talent elsewhere on offense. Sure, Steve Smith Sr. and Greg Olsen are exceptions to that observation, and DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart dovetailed each other nicely when healthy, but Carolina's front office has rightfully retooled Newton's options lately. Kelvin Benjamin, a 2014 first-rounder, has 136 receptions for 1,949 yards and 16 touchdowns in two seasons played, and the Panthers added more offensive firepower with their first two picks this year. In Christian McCaffrey, they not only have Stewart's long-term successor at running back but also a shifty, versatile player to complement the power-based acquisitions of years past. Similarly, after losing speedster Ted Ginn, Carolina drafted Curtis Samuel, whose 4.31-second 40-yard dash placed third at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine. Throw in the nimble Russell Shepard, another 4.3 guy in Charles Johnson and No. 2 wideout Devin Funchess, the roster suddenly sports a deep and nuanced selection at the skill positions. With Newton recovering from surgery, that support figures to be invaluable but could also make the Panthers' distribution of touches tougher to project. In the end, however, the offense finally should be more dangerous as a whole.
KUECHLY KEY IN NEW DEFENSE'S DEVELOPMENT
Following four consecutive seasons ranked within the NFL's top 10 defensively, the Panthers uncharacteristically closed last term behind 20 teams in total defense. The regression came after the team parted ways with Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman last offseason. While Norman's departure left the team with two rookie starters at the position, Luke Kuechly's Week 11 concussion truly derailed the defense and, by proxy, the season. With the All-Pro linebacker unavailable for the next two games, Carolina surrendered 35 and 40 points, respectively. Those performances all but ended the team's playoff hopes, forcing the organization to keep Kuechly out for the remainder of the campaign. While it's no coincidence the unit ventured into the league's upper echelon after he was drafted in 2012, it's also no surprise that last year's dip was linked to Kuechly missing six of 16 games. With 693 tackles, 12 interceptions and nine sacks in 71 career appearances, he's among the league's best defensive players when healthy, which new coordinator Steve Wilks will depend on this season. Wilks served as Carolina's secondary coach between 2012 and 2016, so the team's scheme shouldn't differ much from now-Bills coach Sean McDermott's, but having Kuechly active could very well dictate the heights that the defense reaches.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Cam Newton
After he was named the 2015 NFL MVP, Newton's poor showing in Super Bowl 50 carried over to last year, which was arguably his worst since entering the pro ranks. Although having new weapons at his disposal figures to aid his rebound attempt, Newton's right shoulder surgery in March adds an obstacle ahead of this season.
RISING: Christian McCaffrey
Similar to his ascent in advance of this year's draft, McCaffrey's stock figures to climb as the regular season approaches and his multifaceted skill set is incorporated into an offense in desperate need of some extra juice.
FALLING: Jonathan Stewart
With McCaffrey in tow, the aging, oft-injured Stewart should be able to stay fresh, but improved health may come at the expense of his previously heavy workload, which sustained his value the past couple years.
SLEEPER: Curtis Samuel
Instantly the fastest player on the Panthers, Samuel is no one-trick pony, as he proved equally adept at catching and carrying the ball in college, making him a unique asset to get touches from the slot position.
KEY JOB BATTLE – THIRD RECEIVER
The Panthers' passing game is unquestionably led by tight end Greg Olsen and No. 1 wideout Kelvin Benjamin. Combined, they accounted for roughly 47 percent of the team's receptions (143 of 306) and touchdown catches (10 of 21), and over half of its total receiving yards (2,014 of 3,962) last season. Behind them, though, the offseason departure of Ted Ginn leaves Carolina's third aerial threat to be determined. Looking at the depth chart, Devin Funchess and Russell Shepard are the next wide receivers after Benjamin. However, neither of them have caught more than 31 passes in a single season. While dynamic rookie Curtis Samuel will push the duo for looks, the Panthers' 2017 first-rounder, Christian McCaffrey, should probably be the leading candidate to finish third on the team in receptions. Despite playing running back, McCaffrey averaged more than three catches per game over his last two college seasons, and his varied skill set should offset the presence of starting tailback Jonathan Stewart.
Christian McCaffrey – RB (Rd. 1, No. 8 – Stanford)
Dynamite all-purpose back for the Panthers' present and future.
Curtis Samuel – WR (Rd. 2, No. 40 – Ohio State)
Speed demon topped 1,000 rushing, receiving yards in college career.
Russell Shepard – WR (from Buccaneers)
Former special teamer fresh off 23 grabs for 341 yards and two scores.
JULIUS PEPPERS – DE (from Packers)
Franchise legend returns home as 37-year-old sack specialist.
Ted Ginn – WR (to Saints)
Second stint in Carolina ends after 1,491 yards, 14 TDs in two years.
MIKE TOLBERT – FB (to Bills)
Bulldozing fullback unceremoniously released amid reduced role.
PHILLY BROWN – WR (to Bills)
Production decline in 2016 led to wideout's free-agent exit.
KONY EALY – DE (to Patriots)
Former second-rounder traded after stagnating ahead of contract year.
THE INJURY FRONT
Cam Newton, QB – Newton underwent surgery in March to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder. Despite the questionable timing of the operation, Newton was able to resume throwing to his teammates just before the open of training camp.
Luke Kuechly, LB – Kuechly was sidelined for the final six games of last season while recovering from a concussion. Although he was held out longer than necessary as a precaution, Kuechly was a full participant in the Panthers' offseason program.
Jonathan Stewart, RB – Stewart overcame a listed foot injury to play in the Panthers' final game last season, when a hamstring problem caused him to miss three tilts early. The veteran, whose feet have caused him trouble in the past, has turned in at least three DNPs in five straight seasons.